Town supports municipal electric company legislation

By Ian B. Murphy
The MetroWest Daily News
Nov 11, 2011
Upset with NStar’s ability to get power to residents after the recent storms, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously at their meeting on Monday to support a bill on Beacon Hill that would give towns a better chance to start a municipal electric company.

Selectmen Josh Ostroff said he brought the issue forward because he received several complaints from residents about NStar’s service. Natick was relatively unscathed; 2,710 households lost power, about 16.7 percent of NStar’s customers in town.

“Some people sitting in dark homes were told by NStar that they had their power back on,” Ostroff said. “NStar just doesn’t have the resources anymore to adequately serve its customers in the case of major storms.”

The bill,
House 869, would give the state Department of Public Utilities the ability to set the price for a town seeking to purchase the electrical infrastructure and equipment owned by the utility company. Currently, utility companies set the rates; there has been no new municipal utility company formed since 1926, because the towns find the cost impossible to meet.

In supporting HB 869, Ostroff said he’s not sure if a municipal electric company, or muni, would be right for Natick, but the town should at least have the fair option to explore creating one. If towns had the power to create munis, utility companies may have more incentive to improve service and prices, he said.

“Competition brings about better pricing and better service,” Ostroff said. “I think the utilities would perhaps better evaluate where they’re placing their resources.”

The “muni” bill has been under review in one form or another for nearly a decade, but utility companies have lobbied heavily against the bill and it has been killed several times. Its principal sponsor,
Rep. Jay Kaufman D-Lexington, files it again every year.

The bill has started to see a groundswell of support after power companies struggled to respond the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene and late October’s nor’easter. The bill’s intellectual creator, Patrick Mehr of Lexington, said since Irene the bill has gained significant support from members of the press all over the state.

But Mehr said the media’s support means little; with the support of the Speaker of the House Tom DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray, and Gov. Deval Patrick.

“To me, all I can say is that I didn’t need the hurricane, and the freaky snowstorm, to know that this is good policy for the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Mehr said. “I don’t know what else our political leaders need to see to pass this bill as written. It’s very clear to us that as long as the investor owned utilities keep their monopoly service will be poor, and rates will be high.”

Mike Durand, a spokesman for NStar, said Tropical Storm Irene was a rare occurrence, and the October nor’easter was even rarer.

“This October nor’easter was a historic storm because it hit at a time when the trees were in full canopy,” Durand said. “They were fully leafed. When a nor’easter hits in the middle of the winter, there is damage, and likely power outages. You had even more damage, and in the case of this one, a tremendous amount of power outage that resulted from that damage.”

Durand said NStar sent assessment crews out to record damage as soon as it was safe to get “boots on the ground” and started with the repairs that would restore power to the most people the quickest. NStar is reviewing its response, which it does after every storm, and will adjust its next response to be faster, Durand said.

“We understand there is frustration where the power is out, especially for a couple of days,” Durand said. “There isn’t anyone who wants power back more than the power company.”

As for lobbying against the HB 869, Durand said NStar and its customers have all paid for the equipment that transmits the electricity to residents, and the company should have the right to set a purchase price.

“Where it’s our equipment, we believe we need to be involved and have a say in what the price is for that equipment,” Durand said.

(Ian B. Murphy can be reached at 508-626-3964 or